ACCORDING TO ROLAND BARTHES, all narratives share structural features that each narrative weaves together in different ways. Despite the differences between individual narratives, any narrative employs a limited number of organizational structures (specifically, five of them) that affect our reading of texts. Rather than see this situation as limiting, however, Barthes argues that we should take this plurality of codes as an invitation to read a text in such a way as to bring out its multiple meanings and connotations. Rather than read a text for its linear plot (this happens, then this, then this), rather than be constrained by either genre or even temporal progression, Barthes argues for what he terms a "writerly" rather than a "readerly" approach to texts. According to Barthes, "the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages" (5). This closing of the text happens as you read, as you make decisions about a work's genre and its ideological beliefs; however, when you analyze any one sentence of a work closely, it is possible to illustrate just how impacted with meaning (and possibility) any one sentence really is. Barthes exemplifies what he means in S/Z, in which he takes a short story by Honoré de Balzac (Sarrasine) and analyzes each individual sentence for its relation to five master codes. The forward progression of plot is, he illustrates, only part of the "story"; indeed, that forward progression can itself be separated into two elements that drive our desire to continue reading (the proairetic and hermeneutic codes, which are explained in the next module). In addition, Barthes pinpoints three additional codes that have nothing to do with temporal sequentiality (see the next module). When analyzed closely, every sentence in a story is replete with multiple meanings, all of which are functioning simultaneously in the reading process. As Barthes puts it, "the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one" (5). In other words, Barthes' goal is to illustrate how "plotting," as it is traditionally understood, is in fact a retroactive construction. Instead of seeing a text as conforming to a plot triangle (an opening exposition followed by rising action, a conflict leading to a climax, then falling action leading to a resolution), Barthes understands narrative as more akin to a constellation. He refers, for example, to "'nebulae' of signifieds" (8). According to this logic, there is no necessity that we begin a story at the beginning and proceed to the end; a "writerly text," according to Barthes, has multiple entrances and exits. Barthes therefore chooses to cut up the texts he analyzes into "contiguous fragments" (13), which he calls lexias or "units of reading" (13) or "starred" segments. Barthes' form of criticism ultimately "consists precisely in manhandling the text, interrupting it" (15). Rather than read a text for its closural moment, Barthes is interested in rereading: "rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology ('this happens before or after that') and recaptures a mythic time (without before or after)" (16).

As an example of what Barthes is getting at, I will here reproduce his analysis of the title and first sentence of Balzac's story (pages 17-18 of S/Z). Barthes's method is very much a heuristic one, so it may well be that the best way to illustrate what Barthes is getting at is to reproduce his method. (As a result, one of the best ways to understand Barthes is to begin to apply him; for an application of Barthes to Wuthering Heights, see Applications: Wuthering Heights.) In the following module, I will explain the five codes in more detail. Before we get there, here is Barthes on the opening of Balzac's Sarrasine:

(1) SARRASINE * The title raises a question: What is Sarrasine? A noun? A name? A thing? A man? A woman? This question will not be answered until much later, by the biography of the sculptor named Sarrasine. Let us designate as hermeneutic code (HER) all the units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution. Thus, the title Sarrasine initiates the first step in a sequence which will not be completed until No. 153 (HER. Enigma 1—the story will contain others—: question). ** The word Sarrasine has an additional connotation, that of femininity, which will be obvious to any French-speaking person, since that language automatically takes the final "e" as a specifically feminine linguistic property, particularly in the case of a proper name whose masculine form (Sarrazin) exists in French onomastics. Femininity (connoted) is a signifier which will occur in several places in the text; it is a shifting element which can combine with other similar elements to create characters, ambiances, shapes, and symbols. Although every unit we mention here will be a signifier, this one is of a very special type: it is the signifier par excellence because of its connotation, in the usual meaning of the term. We shall call this element a signifier (without going into further detail), or a seme (semantically, the seme is the unit of the signifier), and we shall indicate these units by the abbreviation SEM, designating each time by an approximate word the connotative signifier referred to in the lexia (SEM. Femininity).

(2) I was deep in one of those daydreams * There will be nothing wayward about the daydream introduced here: it will be solidly constructed along the most familiar rhetorical lines, in a series of antitheses: garden and salon, life and death, cold and heat, outside and interior. The lexia thus lays the groundwork, in introductory form, for a vast symbolic structure, since it can lend itself to many substitutions, variations, which will lead us from the garden to the castrato, from the salon to the girl with whom the narrator is in love, by way of the mysterious old man, the full-bosomed Mme de lanty, or Vien's moonlit Adonis. Thus, on the symbolic level, an immense province appears, the province of the antithesis, of which this forms the first unit, linking at the start its two adversative terms (A/B) in the word daydream. (We shall mark all the units in this symbolic area with the letters SYM. here—SYM. Antithesis: AB.) ** The state of absorption formulated here (I was deep in...) already implies (at least in "readerly" discourse) some event which will bring it to an end (...when I was roused by a conversation...No. 14). Such sequences imply a logic in human behavior. In Aristotelian terms, in which praxis is linked to proairesis, or the ability rationally to determine the result of an action, we shall name this code of actions and behavior proairetic (in narrative, however, the discourse, rather than the characters, determines the action). This code of actions will be abbreviated ACT; furthermore, since these actions produce effects, each effect will have a generic name giving a kind of title to the sequence, and we shall number each of the terms which constitute it, as they appear (ACT. "To be deep in": 1: to be absorbed).

(3) which overtake even the shallowest of men, in the midst of the most tumultuous parties. * The fact "there is a party" (given here obliquely), soon to be followed by further data (a private house in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré), forms a pertinent signifier: the wealth of the Lanty family (SEM. Wealth). ** The phrase is a conversion of what might easily be a real proverb: "Tumultuous parties: deep daydreams." the statement is made in a collective and anonymous voice originating in traditional human experience. Thus, the unit has been formed by a gnomic code, and this code is one of the numerous codes of knowledge or wisdom to which the text continually refers; we shall call them in a very general way cultural codes (even though, of course, all codes are cultural), or rather, since they afford the discourse a basis in scientific or moral authority, we shall call them reference codes (REF. Gnomic code).



Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Barthes: On Plotting." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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